When building reuse makes business sense
December 02, 2021
December 02, 2021
How do you turn an obsolete medical campus into luxury residences? Multiple challenges required multiple design strategies.
This article first appeared as “The Joy of Recycling” in Stantec Design Quarterly, Issue 13.
There are good reasons for adaptive reuse of buildings, from the embodied carbon savings to preserving the historic character of a façade. Often, however, building reuse simply makes sense from a business and zoning perspective. In the case of The Ritz-Carlton Residences Miami Beach, Florida, the former Miami Heart Institute, financial viability was the primary driver for an adaptive reuse project. The reuse strategy posed dramatic challenges for the design team, but it also demonstrated how inventive design can be transformative.
Our team took on the task of converting the former hospital into a luxury residential complex by transforming six hospital buildings totaling approximately 678,000 gross square feet into a modern multifamily housing development. The Miami Beach site was previously the King Cole Hotel, an oceanfront health hotel getaway in the 1920s and then a military hospital during WWII. The hotel was demolished in 1965 to make way for the Miami Heart Institute, which expanded to six structures by the time it was acquired by the Mount Sinai Medical Center. In 2005, Mount Sinai consolidated its operations elsewhere, leaving the substantially obsolete medical campus vacant.
When it acquired the buildings, the new developer faced a conundrum. The maximum height for new buildings is limited to four stories in the area.
If it tore down the overbuilt site—which reached 12 stories at points—and started new, it would have far less square footage for development. If it reused the buildings, it would be able to keep the taller structures and develop much more space.
Space equals revenue. The business case was clear.
Keep the building and opt for adaptive reuse. Our community outreach indicated enthusiastic support for a residential development rather than a healthcare function. To make the numbers work, the buildings would have to be reused as a luxury residential development—an easy sell since it occupies some of Miami’s most prime oceanfront.
While the project itself was unique in scale and location, its challenges are emblematic of the quirks that designers face when engaging with building reuse. There are good lessons to learn from our design strategies to overcome them.
While some reuse projects want to preserve history, this one was about starting new and moving forward. Our design would have to create a powerful and fresh identity for the complex, which had been known for healthcare for generations.
Ideally, it wouldn’t remind the community of its previous use at all.
The renovation would have to transform a hodgepodge of outdated hospital buildings into contemporary residences with luxury appeal. As architect of record, we teamed with design architect Piero Lissoni out of Milan, Italy, to create a dramatic new typology for Miami’s very competitive and style-aware condo market.
The institute was enormous, as if a 30-story skyscraper had been laid on its side. The buildings forming the complex were scaled for healthcare, not residential, so rather than typical residential floor plates of 65 feet, some areas were 200 feet deep.
To bring the buildings down to a human residential scale, we looked at the locations of the supporting columns and carved out bays of concrete and floor slab to minimize the depths of those floor plates without impacting the building structure.
The architectural massing gave the building a more organic shape while maintaining the columns. In the process, we maximized light and views for the new development’s eventual 111 units.
Miami Heart Institute looked like one massive building, but it was actually comprised of six structures built years, even decades, apart. While they abutted each other, their floor slabs were at different elevations, and their structural systems varied from precast to cast-in-place to waffle slab. This made a uniform approach to the renovation impossible.
Once we broke up the massing of the building, we decided to incorporate multiple architectural languages into the complex so we could offer some variety and make its vast areas distinctive within the whole. Maximizing the square footage available was a key driver for our design. But reducing the visual massing of the building by breaking it down into different architectural languages for community fit was also critical. So, while the overall aesthetic for the project is very tropical modern, we created variations within that.
Once we broke up the massing of the building, we decided to incorporate multiple architectural languages into the complex so we could offer some variety.
We developed different languages for the transitional areas between the building elements to break up what had previously appeared as one structure into smaller visual components. For one building, we designed vertical aluminum features and patterned elements throughout the facade. On another, we created horizontal framed panels and a distinctive pattern throughout the building. The 12-story center tower has its own architectural language with wraparound glass distinguished by cantilevered balconies. And then the smaller buildings between the two larger ones feature a frittered pattern on glass railings. By achieving a more natural scale and materiality, The Ritz-Carlton Residences feel like a village neighboring a residential area, not an imposing institution.
The idiosyncratic series of buildings meant that each floor had a different footprint. The floor plates did not stack uniformly and were varied structurally. Columns and beam conditions varied from building to building and floor to floor.
The tiered nature of the existing building complex created a planning challenge. Structural beams at every level were different, if we had one beam condition in this corner of the building on the second floor, it was sometimes completely different on third and up.
Change was constant during construction, so to contend with the varying conditions, we had a team of five people doing construction administration on site. But the quirks of the buildings gave designers the opportunity to produce organic and unique designs, resulting in 64 residential unit types and spectacular oversized outdoor terraces for many units.
The long horizontal complex met the surrounding residential area as a huge, uninviting, and institutional grade wall.
The Miami skyline inspired us in our design collaboration, which celebrates and opens to the waterfront. The project’s minimalist design blurs the line between indoor and outdoor living, and each residence looks toward the landscape with framed views of Miami and Miami Beach. To ease the transition between the large-scale village of residences and the surrounding neighborhood, we rerouted the access road and designed a semipublic park as a buffer zone between the neighborhood and the complex.
Today, The Ritz-Carlton Residences Miami Beach serves as a model of architectural adaptive reuse. This project shows us that even under complex and challenging conditions, building reuse projects driven by financial considerations can achieve a great deal with thoughtful design approaches.